By Warren McCullough of CompactRV.net.au
Campervan and Motorhome design always involves compromises, especially in smaller vans, and nowhere more-so than in the bedding, lounge and storage departments. We found ourselves chasing some Holy Grails: not having to make-up the bed each night (we still enjoy traditional sheets, blankets and a doona!) and maintaining a dining area while providing storage space for bulky items.
The Standard Setup
Our van is a medium-wheelbase Mercedes Sprinter, six-metres in length. The original layout included what is a widely-adopted seating and bedding arrangement in compact vans: bench seating along each side at the rear of the van, sliding towards the centre of the van to form a double bed. Alternatively, the bench seats can be left in place and used as single beds.
In either case, the bedding has to be completely remade each evening. A bed takes up around half the floor area of a compact van’s limited space, so its setup – in particular its location and permanency – is always one of those compact van compromises. And while we are talking about space, the standard bench cupboards provide little storage for bulky items such as levelling ramps, chairs, fold-up tables or a Weber oven – another compact van compromise!
Squeezing It In
In addressing both these issues – permanent bedding and increased storage – we reconfigured the cabinet work in the rear section of the van. We called on the expertise of our local campervan fit-out gurus for help in sourcing matching materials and finishing the cut edges of the plywood, but otherwise this was a pretty straightforward DIY project.
The plan was to close-in the back section of the ‘walk-through’ between the two bench seats and use the area as a permanent east-west bed, sleeping across the van while retaining the forward section of the bench seats as a permanent lounge/dining area. However, after testing this arrangement for one night, even with our modest heights, we concluded the standard-width Sprinter isn’t really wide enough to comfortably sleep across. Plus, it was awkward climbing over each other to get out of the bed.
However, we felt that the ‘closing in’ of the rear area of the van to form a U-configuration still had some merit. With a little more tweaking on the same base, we now have a ‘retractable’ north-south bed that can stay partly made up when using the dining area, while creating a permanent storage area below the bed. The best of both worlds!
Making it happen
Pictured is the original bench seat structure with the cushions removed. The original lid panels on top of the benches were hinged on the outside edge of their openings. This was fine when the seat cushions lift from the centre of the van, but not so great when the bed is made!
A plywood ‘rail’ has been added along the vertical wall of each bench, to support the additional bed base boards to be fitted between the bench cabinets. The material used is the same lightweight marine plywood as used for all the cabinetwork in the van.
The table post socket in the floor was located forward of the area to be closed in. If this socket had been further towards the rear, it’s not too big a drama to fit another socket or install an alternative table mounting mechanism.
We reversed the hinging of the bench seat lids so they now open towards the centre of the van. This hinge reversal is important – it greatly simplifies access to the under-bench storage when the bed is made up. (See diagram below.) Additional holes drilled in the lids provide easy ‘lift and open’ access from each end of the bench.
A divider, fitted between the two benches, closes off the under-bed storage area and supports the front edge of the mattress base boards.
This divider is held in place with small sliding barrel clips, allowing for easy removal of the panel to provide internal access to stored items in the under-bed area, and to accommodate longer items (eg snowboards). The vent in the divider panel facilitates air being drawn from the living area through to the intake of the diesel heater, fitted under the left bench seat.
Open and Shut case
Reversing the hinges on the lids of the bench seats is an important part of the bed conversion, providing easy access to the under-bench storage while the bed remains made up.
Back to Base
The centre section of the bed-base consists of three equal-sized boards sitting on the previously added plywood rails and divider.
The dining table drops in the bottom end of the centre area to complete the bed base. This may require resizing of the existing table to fit the space. Alternatively, another section of base board could be carried to drop into this section.
These boards are held in position by small dowel pins (rather than screws) to prevent the boards moving forward under braking. Being in three pieces and held in place with the dowel pins, the panels are easy to remove and store when we use the van as temporary transport for large items.
We engaged an upholsterer to cut and re-cover the seat backrests to use as the narrow centre mattress cushions. These cushions can still be used as seat backrests if the bed is returned to its original ‘bench seat’ configuration.
The shorter seat backrests drop in on top of the table insert to complete the mattress.
But wait – there's more!
Not only do we now have a comfortable semi-permanent bed, we also enjoy the benefits of the new storage area under the bed, accommodating a Weber oven, folding table, chairs, levelling ramps, and a fold-up solar blanket. A PVC tube houses a collapsible frame for supporting our portable solar blanket at a more productive sun-oriented angle.
Sleeping and Eating
The most important feature of the modification though is that the north-south bed doesn’t need to be completely deconstructed to use the dining area - which is where this all started!
If we need to use the inside table and seating we can quickly roll back half the bedding – soft top, sheets, doona, etc – lift the table and use the remaining bench seating for a dining area. The bottom end of the bed can be re-made very quickly.
We use our van as a second domestic vehicle as well as a holiday van. Thanks to the temporary clip-in fittings, the recently added panels can be easily removed to transport large items when required.
This relatively minor cabinetwork modification has improved our van’s flexibility and usability, providing a semi-permanent bed and dining area, while increasing our storage capacity when travelling. Win, win, win!